The Big Interview: VIEW talks to Commissioner for Older People

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Image: Eddie Lynch, the Commissioner for Older People in Northern Ireland

VIEW editor Brian Pelan puts a series of questions to Eddie Lynch, The Commissioner for Older People in Northern Ireland, about his role and his plans to raise a number of pressing issues, including addressing loneliness

Brian Pelan: Question: Your predecessor in the post, Claire Keatinge, said in her final report: “I am convinced that our politicians believe that they want Northern Ireland to be a great place to age. Yet I remain frustrated by the lack of decisive action which is required by Government to introduce the legislation, services and policy that would create the certainty that today’s and tomorrow’s older people need and deserve.” Has the situation improved for older people since you took up your position? :

Eddie Lynch: Answer: Much of my early days in the post have been looking at the Programme for Government (PfG). Given that it’s a key document for the next five years I’ve been extremely disappointed by the lack of focus on older people. One of the great news stories of our generation is that we are living longer but it also brings challenges for government. The current PfG, as it sits, is not one that is going to support an ageing population.

Q: Does the Department of Communities adequately fund you to cover your role?

A: Our organisation was set up at a time of austerity and it took it a while to get it fully operational.One of the things that I’m keen to pursue is that we have the resources we need to properly tackle all of the issues being raised by older people. I feel we would require an increase in our budget to cope with the level of issues being raised.

Q: Do you feel that Government listens to your advice. Are they under any obligation to implement your recommendations?

A: They don’t have to do what I recommend, but they do have to respond and give reasons about why they are not doing it. Since my time in office I have been well received by ministers and have held a number of meetings with them.

Q: How many investigations is your office currently carrying out.

A: We have very strict criteria in accepting individual cases as we have a duty under our legislation not to duplicate the work of any other organisation. At the moment we have well over 100 live cases. One of the big issues is the financial abuse of older people.

Q: What are you doing to address the issue of loneliness amongst older people.

A: I think that loneliness is a major issue. This has gradually become a bigger problem for older people. Twenty or 30 years ago there was a much closer family network and closer-knit communities. That has changed as people’s families are now living all over the world. Also, there is lots of research coming out which shows how serious the issue is. Some research has shown that loneliness has as much impact on your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And if you are very lonely you are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as someone who isn’t. I think we need to create the conditions in society that will come up with a suite of options which are aimed at supporting older people in later life, Older people find themselves lonely for a range of reasons and there is not one solution to it. But I think we need to support them to remain active for as long as possible. Initiatives like the bus pass are a fantastic way of keeping older people active and out and about. I am a huge advocate of the bus pass and I believe it should be a universal pass because it brings about huge benefits for wider society. I would strongly resist any move to bring in a means test for those who receive it.

Q: Are older people adequately looked after if they fall ill.

A: The Minister for Health has just outlined a 10-year reform plan. There seems to be a consensus that change needs to happen in providing health and social care. One of the things that the minister has outlined is a move to provide more care in the community and more of a focus on preventive care; that’s something which I support. Most older people that I speak to want to receive as much care and medical support as possible in their own homes. My focus is to ensure that quality of care is adequate.

Q: How secure is the future for older people who are living in residential care.

A: We work very closely with the the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA), on the issue. Obviously, the quality of care for older people in nursing and residential homes is an area of key concern to me. We will work very closely with the RQIA about any issues that are raised to us by older people or their families. We have investigated a number of cases. One issue regarding residential homes that I am concerned about is tenancy arrangements. It’s unacceptable that if you have made a complaint and raised concerns about quality of care that you could be threatened with eviction.

Q: Has there been an improvement in crime detection rates of perpetrators of crimes against older people being arrested, charged and convicted. A: The reality is that older people are still less likely to have crimes against them resolved than other age groups. I have brought this issue to the PSNI and the Policing Board and we now have targets to try and address this. One of the pieces of work that my office has been carrying out is doing research on older people who have been victims of crime. Q: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future for older people, especially those surviving on a low budget at a time of austerity?

A: I’m always an optimist, but I’m still very concerned that there needs to be more focus on our ageing population. I think that the Programme for Government, which is being consulted on at the moment, has to prioritise older people to a much higher level. I hope that the Government is listening to what we are saying.

Q: What’s the most frustrating aspect of your job.

A: In this area of work you would like to get things done a lot quicker. Even when you get progress on things it still takes a lot of time. Although I think that is the nature of the policy world, these things just don’t happen overnight.

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